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[ 29 ] CHAPTER TWO Labour’s clinging on to the Gulf, 1964–67 On 16 December 1964, the new Prime Minister of Britain Harold Wilson proudly proclaimed in the House of Commons: I want to make it clear that whatever we may do in the field of cost effectiveness, value for money, and a stringent review of expenditure, we cannot afford to relinquish our world rôle [sic], our rôle which, for shorthand purposes, is sometimes called our ‘East of Suez’ rôle …1 At the beginning of his premiership, Wilson was openly sanguine about Britain’s commitment to ‘East of Suez’. Wilson’s commitment to Britain’s ‘East of Suez role’ was once portrayed by Philip Darby as ‘a clash between Wilson the economist and the pragmatist and Wilson the romantic conservative’.2 Wilson certainly had various faces. First of all, he was one of the brightest politicians of his generation. After completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Oxford with exceptionally high grades, he had soon become one of the youngest economics dons at that university. At the same time he was from the Labour left, although he was also known to be a pragmatist. He also appeared committed to Britain’s traditional role in the world, having once even proclaimed that ‘Britain’s frontiers are on the Himalayas’.3 During the ensuing years, however, his Labour government would change its position regarding Britain’s commitment overseas and, in January 1968, it would announce its intention to leave the Persian Gulf. The next two chapters will address the question of why Britain ultimately decided to withdraw from the Gulf. This chapter will focus on the first three years of Wilson’s premiership, critically re-examining the traditional explanations for the withdrawal, while the next chapter will put forward a different explanation, drawing on original archival research. Our concern here corresponds directly to some of the central questions about the end of empire: Why, when and how does an empire SATO 9780719099687 PRINT.indd 29 04/12/2015 08:53 BRITAIN AND THE FORMATION OF THE GULF STATES [ 30 ] end? John Darwin categorises the various explanations into three groups, according to their emphasis on metropolitan, peripheral or international factors.4 This framework can be further advanced by dividing the three groups according to their analytical perspectives, depending on whether they give precedence to economic, political and military, or social and cultural factors. Of course, the nine factors are interconnected, but the division provides a helpful starting point for a concrete analysis. In particular, when looking at the reasons behind the Labour government’s decision to withdraw from the Gulf, there are five plausible factors: the economic retrenchment of Britain; political and ideological changes in the international environment; ideological pressure at home; local opposition, either from the rulers or from their societies; and domestic political considerations. The existing literature is divided as to which factors were the more important. The prevailing view pivots around economic retrenchment, in the sense that the longterm relative economic decline had convinced the government by July 1967 that it should leave the ‘East of Suez’, including Aden, Malaysia, Singapore and the Persian Gulf. This view rests upon three ideas: (1) That the withdrawal from the Gulf was decided upon as part of the retreat from a larger area ‘East of Suez’; (2) That the decision had been taken by July 1967; and (3) That economic pressure was the main driver behind the whole process. The next two chapters will take issue with each of these components, and demonstrate that the decision-making process was far more contingent , contested and fraught. In particular, this chapter will look at the first three years of Wilson’s premiership and critically re-examine point (1) above by interrogating the extent to which the Labour government’s policy towards the Gulf was crafted as part of the ‘East of Suez’ policy, and whether the withdrawal from the Gulf really had been decided by July 1967. The first section will set out the Wilson government’s initial stance towards the Persian Gulf and look into the background behind it. The second section will take up the question concerning (1), and the third section will examine the significance of (2). Furthermore, this chapter will examine the international environment, whether there was significant ideological pressure pushing Britain out of the region, and whether any local considerations that moved Britain to leave the Gulf were emerging. SATO 9780719099687 PRINT.indd 30 04...


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